Red Light Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Last modified on May 11th, 2021 at 11:41 am

Puttanesca is made from tomatoes, black olives, capers, onions, garlic, basil and anchovies giving it its reputation of being pungent and invigorating, like the prostitutes of Naples. 

Everybody loves a good story. Especially in the kitchen we’re surrounded by culinary anecdotes that evoke an emotion or familiar; stories of thoughtful ingredients, kitchen heirlooms and beloved dishes adding to the comfort of the cooking experience. But ever so often the history of a dish is so well told that the combination of eating and reflecting becomes a treat for the senses. Enter the fiery and sexy story of Puttanesca, the prostitutes pasta.

Spaghetti Puttanesca on a white plate with small bowl of chilli flakes

Puttanesca sauce is made from tomatoes, black olives, capers, onions, garlic, basil and anchovies giving its reputation of being pungent and invigorating. A few nights ago Philip and I made this Naples classic and ate our meal while reading and discussing stories of how puttanesca came to be:

1. Prostitutes would cook puttanesca and the pungent smell would waft into the streets to entice men into their brothels in turn giving them more business. You could call them the sirens of the culinary world.

2. There’s another myth that prostitutes could only shop the market one day a week due to a conflict with them and the clients’ wives. Using canned ingredients in their Puttanesca like anchovies, capers, olives and tomatoes allowed their ingredients to last longer throughout the week.

3. Puttanesca was an easy and quick meal ideal for cooking in between clients at the brothel.

Spaghetti Puttanesca on a white plate with a blue napkin

Now enough of the history lesson, let’s get to cooking.

How to Make Spaghettia alla Puttanesca

Ingredients you will need

Spaghetti, olive oil, shallots, garlic, black olives, anchovies (optional), capers, red pepper flakes, San Marzano tomatoes, Parmigiano Reggiano, Basil

Flat lay of dry spaghetti, tomatoes in a bowl, shallots, garlic, basil, red pepper flakes, olives, parmesan, and capers

Boil the Water

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Ensure there is enough salt to flavour the spaghetti, when you test the water, it should taste like the sea.

Start the Puttanesca Sauce

While you’re waiting on the water to boil, heat a good splash of olive oil on medium heat. Add and sauté a diced shallot, 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of capers, and 2 anchovy fillets (optional) until softened and the anchovies melted. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute, just to release the flavour. Pour in a 28 oz (796 ml) can of San Marzano tomatoes (we prefer D.O.P variety) and crush them with the back of a spoon or your hands, if you’re feeling brave. Crank the heat up to medium-high and boil the sauce for 10 minutes, until it thickens.

Cook the Noodles

After the sauce has reduced, add 1 pound (450 g) of spaghetti, fettuccine, or linguine to the pot of boiling water. Cook until al dente, usually about 8 to 10 minutes for dry pasta and 4 to 6 minutes for fresh.

Puttanesca overhead ingredients olives, capers, tomatoes and basil

Turn it into Spaghetti all Puttanesca

Now that the noodles are cooking, the puttanesca sauce can be finished. Add 3/4 cup (135 g) of pitted black olives, 2 tbsp (30 ml) of capers, and 1 tsp (5 ml) of spicy red pepper flakes. Give it a good stir and lower the heat to simmer until the spaghetti is done. Taste the sauce and season with salt or additional pepper flakes, if necessary.

Make it Beautiful

Once the noodles have finished cooking, draining the water, reserving half a cup and dump the noodles into the sauce. Use a pair of tongs to toss the spaghetti with the sauce and add a splash of the pasta water if the sauce needs to be a little thinner, then toss in a big handful of Parm.

With the tongs, grab a big potion of the spaghetti and twirl it around on the base of a serving spoon. Carefully lay it in the centre of a pasta bowl, gently releasing while twirling so the spaghetti forms a nest. Spoon some sauce form the bottom of the pot and lay on top of the spaghetti. Top with a generous sprinkling of Parm and some whole or chopped basil leaves.

Bon appetit xo

Chef Sous Chef

Spaghetti Puttanesca next to a glass of red wine

Helpful Tools and Ingredients to Make Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

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Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Spaghetti Puttanesca on a white plate with a napkin

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca provides aromas matched only by the taste of this flavourful pasta dish. Black olives, capers, onions and garlic make for strong flavours balanced by the sweetness of the tomatoes and basil. Don’t forget freshly grated parmesan to finish the dish. With how easy it is to make, you’ll wonder why this hasn’t been in your rotation of work week dinners.

  • Author: Chef Sous Chef
  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Cook Time: 30 minutes
  • Total Time: 40 minutes
  • Yield: 6 servings 1x
  • Category: Food + Drink, Everyday, Dinner
  • Cuisine: Italian




  • 3 tbsp (45 ml) olive oil
  • 1 small shallot, thinly sliced
  • 2 tbsp (30 ml) capers
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp (5 ml) salt
  • 1 can (28 oz/796 ml) San Marzano tomatoes (we prefer D.O.P variety)
  • 1 lb (450 g) dry or fresh spaghetti
  • 3/4 cup (130 g) olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1 tsp (5 ml) chili flakes
  • Sea salt
  • 1 cup (160 g) freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) loosely packed fresh basil leaves


No. 1 | Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

No. 2 | Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan heat olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the shallots, capers and anchovies and cook stirring occasionally, until shallots are softened and anchovies melted. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute. Pour in the tomatoes, breaking them up with the back of a spoon. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and reduce for 10 minutes.

No. 3 | Add the pasta to the water and cook until al dente.

No. 4 | While pasta is cooking, add the olives and chili flakes to the tomato sauce and stir to combine. Continue to cook until thickened. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary.

No. 5 | When the pasta is done, strain and reserve about 1/2 cup of pasta water. Stir the spaghetti into the puttanesca sauce. Add pasta water if necessary to loosen the sauce, then stir in 1/2 cup of the Parmigiano and half the basil leaves. Serve immediately, topping with additional Parm and basil.

Keywords: Quick pasta recipes, puttanesca recipe, pasta dinner ideas

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca with Chili Flakes and Parm


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  • Reply
    Paula P.
    November 17, 2017 at 7:04 pm

    I love the story, hahaha! This is my new favourite pasta dish.

    • Reply
      Chef Sous Chef
      November 20, 2017 at 8:14 am

      Thanks Paula!

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